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Inside the Electoral College

The little-known work of electors could produce the next president. Here's what they do.

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


The riveting political story unfolding in Florida has put a spotlight on a somewhat obscure element of democracy: the Electoral College.

Established 200 years ago, the Electoral College is a method of indirect popular election of the president.

This year, the unusual nature of the presidential election could have the institution playing a pivotal role in deciding who goes to the White House.

The Electoral College works like this: Each state gets a number of electors equal to the number of congressional members it has. In Florida, that number is 25.

Electors, typically chosen by parties for their political loyalty, cast votes about a month after the general election. The winner of this contest -- who must get at least 270 of the 538 available electoral votes -- is president.

This year's presidential contest, in which Democrat Al Gore edged Republican George W. Bush in the popular vote but could lose to him in the electoral count, has raised questions of whether electors should be bound by their states' popular votes.

Depending upon how Florida goes, the winner could have only a one- or two-vote margin in the Electoral College. It raises a scenario in which a rogue elector -- admittedly a rarity -- could play a historical role.

It is not illegal in Florida for electors to cast a ballot for a different candidate than the one they've pledged to support. But it is unlikely.

"I'm sure that a person who is an elector could have a change of heart, but I don't think that will happen," said Al Austin, a Tampa developer and a Republican elector. He said he will support Bush.

In Florida, the process starts with designations of electors. According to state law, each of the state party's executive committees recommends a slate of 25 electors to the governor. Each of the electors has taken an oath that they will vote for the candidates of the party.

By Sept. 1, the governor is required to certify to the Florida Department of State the names of the electors from each party. He is not allowed to change the slate. However, state law allows the governor to appoint a person to fill a vacancy if an elector dies or is incapacitated.

Throughout the country's history, more than 99 percent of electors have voted as pledged, according to the Electoral College's web site.

There have been nine cases in which electors voted for someone other than who their state elected. Five of these cases were in the last 40 years. In 1960, Henry Irwin, a Republican-pledged elector from Oklahoma, voted for Virginia's conservative Democrat, Harry Byrd, because he said he "could not stomach" Richard Nixon.

While there are no constitutional provisions or federal laws that force electors to vote as promised, 24 states and Washington, D.C., require them to do so. Some states force the issue by law, and others, including Florida, have electors sign an oath.

State Sen. John McKay, a Bradenton Republican, also is a Republican elector. He said he signed an affidavit swearing to support Bush in the Electoral College vote -- a pledge he intends to honor.

"I certainly hope I have the opportunity to do that for him in the Electoral College," McKay said.

Sandy Faulkner, a Republican elector from Palm Harbor, said the intense nature of the closing weeks of the election had left little time to think about the Electoral College process.

For the record, she will support Bush.

"I guess it's going to be a pretty historic election," she said. "It seemed like more of a formality at one point."

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report

Florida's presidential electors

REPUBLICANS: Charles W. Kane, Dorsey C. Miller, Maria De La Milera, Glenda E. Hood, Sandra M. Faulkner, Dawn Guzzetta, H. Gary Morse, Armando Codina, Carole Jean Jordan, Tom Slade, Marsha Nippert, Robert L. Woody, John Thrasher, Mel Martinez, Feliciano M. Foyo, Al Hoffman, Alfred S. Austin, Thomas C. Feeney III, John M. McKay, Cynthia M. Handley, Darryl K. Sharpton, Adam W. Herbert, Berta J. Moralejo, Jeanne Barber Godwin, Deborah L. Brooks.

DEMOCRATS: Clarence Anthony, Jon Ausman, T. Wayne Bailey, Mitchell Berger, Lance Block, Terrie Brady, Bob Butterworth, Buddy Dyer, Juanita Geathers, Diane Glasser, Dalas Guevara, Robert Henriquez, Tony Hill, Daryl Jones, Karl Koch, Chris Korge, Kendrick Meek, Les Miller, George Platt, Bob Poe, Marla Prado, Juanita Scott, Patti Wilson Haney, Paulette Wimberly, Jennette Wynn.

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